Submitted: The Two Sides Team May 28, 2012
May 28, 2012
To truly evaluate the environmental footprint of paper, measurements over the whole life-cycle are needed. Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is used to analyze each stage of a product’s life-cycle from raw materials, production, distribution, product use and through to end of life. LCA is an accounting framework and, instead of dollars, it measures potential environmental and human health impacts . According to Nestlé, LCA is the most widely used scientific methodology for assessing products’ overall environmental impact. Walmart recognized the importance of a life-cycle approach as the basis for their product sustainability efforts and therefore made life-cycle the foundation of The Sustainability Consortium which they initiated.
Without a life-cycle approach, environmental decisions and environmental marketing may be based on one element of a product life-cycle (ex: recycled fiber use) without consideration of other more significant elements (ex: carbon footprint, measured environmental performance of manufacturing facilities) and, unfortunately, this can be deemed “greenwashing” or misrepresenting the environmental benefits of a product. Product environmental impacts are not as simple as we would like, be it paper, electronic media, or any other product we use. But those who want to know the true footprint will track key metrics across the product life-cycle.
Many in the pulp and paper industry have embraced LCA as an important tool to improve environmental performance and to create credible science-based communications. For example, the American Forest and Paper Association along with the Forest Products Association of Canada commissioned an LCA on four paper product types, namely magazines, catalogues, directory and office paper. The key findings were the following:
The most significant environmental impacts were due to pulp and paper production and product disposal at the end-of-life.
The impacts of paper production are mainly driven by use of fossil fuels in manufacturing process.
An increase of bio-based energy sources at paper mills reduces climate change impacts.
Increasing recovery rate has a significant positive effect on global warming impacts.
Transportation is not very significant in overall life-cycle impacts.
This LCA closely followed the ISO standards for LCA, ISO 14040 and ISO 14044. These standards set out a detailed framework including the importance of transparency, not only for the results but also for the assumptions and for analyses to cross-check the validity of the results (uncertainty and sensitivity analyses). LCA, like any other analysis tool, can be ‘gamed’ to result in a biased outcome. However when a study follows ISO standards closely, the reader of the study has all the information required to assess and interpret the results for themselves and any ‘gaming’ will be evident.
When examining the carbon footprint along the life cycle, the AF&PA and FPAC study showed that the two largest contributors to the carbon footprint of paper are: 1) energy used in manufacturing (mill site and purchased power) and 2) methane emissions from paper that ends up in landfill sites. Transportation is a relatively minor component.
In other words, energy efficiency and use of renewable energy for manufacturing and paper recovery are key elements in reducing the carbon footprint of paper products. The high use of renewable biomass energy in the U.S. pulp and paper industry (currently at 66% and the focus on paper recovery (currently at 66.8%) are significant environmental benefits that helps reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. AF&PA has recently set a goal to increase paper recovery to exceed 70% by 2020. High renewable energy use at Kraft pulp mills (biomass and black liquor) is also one of the reasons that paper grades with Kraft fibers can have a very low carbon footprint compared to other paper grades.
The increased use of life-cycle approaches by the forest products industry will continue to drive understanding, transparency and most importantly, improvements to the environmental profile.
Christine Burow is a guest blogger for Two Sides U.S. She runs an independent consulting company focused on business-to-business strategy with an emphasis on marketing and sustainability. Christine is also Co-Chair of The Sustainability Consortium’s Paper Sector.